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Soft interview can’t shield Mike Ashley's continual Newcastle failings

Wednesday 16th August 2017
Mike Ashley's confession to Sky Sports that he was naive when he first bought Newcastle does little for the damage he's caused.

Sunday evening's interview with Mike Ashley revealed little to those who've followed the Sports Direct owner since he purchased Newcastle United ten years ago. The 52-year-old is notorious for his ability to avoid the tough questions. Yet, with both he and his retail empire at the mercy of Government inquiries, 2016-17 has been different. The Toon chairman has been under an intense media spotlight.

In an effort to soften his abrasive image, the billionaire granted an unexpected audience with Sky Sports. In return, Ashley was thrown a host of easy questions, the type Yanks call softballs, that saw him apologise often but provide little assurance for the club's future.
Ashley reflected on a rollercoaster tenure during which the Magpies have twice been relegated and a host of capable managers suffered under his leadership. The businessman spoke with regret when discussing Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, and Chris Hughton, admitting in hindsight, mistakes had been made in his handling of all three.

Ashley also acknowledged that he would be prepared to sell if the deal was right and that the club will remain unable to compete with the likes of Manchester City while he remains Tyneside.

His response has been met with cynicism from fans. Many have noted nobody is asking newly promoted Newcastle United to compete with Pep Guardiola's title favourites. What is being asked is for the club to compete well against teams who will be fighting to avoid relegation.

Following their immediate return to the Premier League, reports emerged Rafa Benitez could expect up to £100 million in funds. To date, only £38 million has been spent, despite the club selling Florian Thauvin (Marseille) and Daryl Murphy (Forest) for a combined £12 million. Whereas Ashley, Rafa, and Managing Director Lee Charney were all smiles on day one, there is a growing fear the other two's lack of support will eventually cause Benitez to walk away.
Rafa has famously come to loggerheads with club executives before. He left Liverpool's even more disastrous ownership, Americans Hicks and Gillette, as the Reds stared administration in the face. He then fought in the media for more funds from Inter chairman Massimo Moratti. Still, frustrated Newcastle fans will tell you this is nothing new in life under Ashley.

The current situation mirrors Kevin Keegan's resignation over player recruitment in 2008. Ashley touched on the incident in his Sky interview.
We didn't have that structure around that we should have had to support him, with the signings and everything else, and I will take responsibility for that.
Ashley could soon be echoing those remarks regarding Benitez. The chairman left immediately following Newcastle's 2-0 home loss to Tottenham rather than staying to console the manager. It was a missed opportunity to ease any tensions between the pair.
He has pledged the Spaniard can have “every penny the club generates” but pointed to the overturned “£40 million/yr stadium naming rights deal” as an example why the club isn't generating sufficient money. Hull fans, saddled with the Allams, can sympathise.

Whilst St. James' Park will not undergo a branding change, the stadium itself does include multiple advertisement hoardings and smaller signage for Ashley's company, Sports Direct. In the last two annual Newcastle United Football Accounts, it has been confirmed the club receives no payment for these.
During the current and prior year, advertising and promotional services were provided to Sports Direct International being a company associated with the ultimate owner of the company, MJW Ashley. No consideration has been paid by Sports Direct International for these services to date but Sports Direct International and the Company are in the process of agreeing an arms length rate for these services and the Company anticipates receiving payment for these services in the future.--2015 report
Tellingly, the 2016 report, released in April, 2017, mentioned no payment, only repeating word-for-word the first sentence in the passage above.
During that period, the club's commercial revenue rose by less than 1%, a figure even below inflation. Relegation affected television revenues, though little else. Attendance in 2016-17 in the Championship was increased by 1,350 people per match from the 2015-16 Premier League campaign. Each and every supporter's gaze inevitably fell on Sports Directs ubiquitous signage. How much additional money might have been raised by selling ad space to paying businesses?

Since obtaining the club in 2007, Ashley has personally invested £250 million, £129 million in the form of an interest-free loan that must be repaid. Recently, he has purchased shares in Debenhams, House of Fraser, and French Connection. In its last fiscal year, despite a 60% fall, Sports Direct still made a £113.7 million pre-tax profit. Ashley has confirmed he will not invest his own money further in Newcastle.

On their own, Newcastle have made an after-tax profit of £18.7 million, £32.4 million, and £4.6 million in the past three years. Staggeringly, Toon are 15th among this season's 20 Premier League clubs in average net transfer spending for the past five years, below smaller clubs such as Watford, Crystal Palace, and West Brom. Newcastle are the only Premier League side that hasn't broken its own transfer record this decade. They last did so to sign Michael Owen in 2005.

For a manager who has won every major European trophy, this cannot be good enough. There is no room for growth under a regime that strives for mediocrity. Valid questions should be asked about the club's ability to not only compete but progress under Ashley in football's new, money-driven era.
Just when hope reared its head, history appears doomed to repeat itself at Newcastle United. Something must change because no softball interview can prevent that.
John Howell

A graduate of Media & Cultural Studies from the University of West of England, I am a 26-year-old sports fanatic based in Bristol and an avid supporter of Newcastle United. I have written for several sites before joining It's Round and It's White and although I write primarily on the subject of football, you can catch me playing rugby on the weekends, no pun intended.

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